When Evan asked me to guest post, I was honored. On my blog, The Cranky Flier, I write broadly about airline travel but I don’t often get to dig in deep to look at policy issues. The more I thought about what to write, the more I kept coming back to the Bay Area. No, not THAT Bay Area. No, not the one in Florida either. I’m talking about Coos Bay (Oregon) and it’s evil twin, North Bend. (Ok, it’s not really evil at all.)
I know, that’s weird, right? People don’t think of Coos Bay and North Bend very often. And to be honest, when I first heard the name, I had to look it up on a map despite having family in Portland. So that you don’t have to do the same, here it is in all its glory, with just a little bit of editorializing.
I chose to write about Coos Bay, because one of my readers mentioned that my blog had been brought up on an episode of Think Out Loud, a program from Oregon Public Broadcasting. If you find this topic interesting, I’d recommend heading over and listening to all 52 minutes of the program.
The main topic was the loss of air service in Oregon. They mentioned my blog because of an old post of mine expressing my opposition to the Essential Air Service program. This program was a very interesting look at several issues regarding Oregon’s shrinking air service, but I thought it was interesting to focus on the issues facing Coos Bay and North Bend.
The Bay Area lies along the Pacific, a “mere” 222 mile drive from Portland. According to Google Maps, that’ll take you a good 4 hours and 3 minutes. Up until this summer, service was relatively consistent. Portland saw year-round connectivity, and there was often summer service to Seattle. It probably wouldn’t surprise anyone to see that Horizon’s service was rapidly becoming less and less viable. Why?
- The price of oil skyrocketed
- The cost of operating at the airport had risen (I assume, since there’s a brand-spanking new terminal)
- Horizon announced the end of service with its 37-seat aircraft and will now operate nothing below 74 seats
I imagine that Horizon was just aching for a way to get out, but it’s not that simple. The government doesn’t allow the last airline serving an airport to pull out without permission. So, Horizon would have had to file 90 days notice so that the government could try to find a replacement. “Try” is a key piece of this, but in this case, Horizon got lucky before they even filed the notice.
On June 27, SkyWest (operating as United Express) announced it would start twice daily service down to the real Bay Area (San Francisco), 500+ miles to the south, on July 7. That same day, Horizon filed with the government to stop its 3 to 4 daily flights to Portland (PDF) on October 11.
So for now, Coos Bay/North Bend has mixed feelings. They’re going to miss their more frequent Portland connection, but they do now have service to San Francisco. But what happens next? SkyWest is slowly phasing out its 30 seat Brasilias. How will it be replaced? And if it doesn’t make financial sense, then how can they end this service?
It’s a very sticky situation when it comes to service to smaller communities. Essential Air Service subsidies can help with some areas, but now even larger ones that could support some subsidy-free service are feeling the pain. With fuel prices where they are, things aren’t going to get easier.
If you’re a small airport, your #1 goal should be to keep user costs low, because that’s your best bet to maintain service. But now, even low airport costs aren’t enough to guarantee service. The government is going to have to take a long look at how small community air service is going to be handled in the future, because the current model isn’t working.